Here’s a fun experiment: suggest playing a game of Monopoly and predict the responses you’ll receive. More often than not, you’ll be hit with an audible groan and the familiar refrain of “Has anyone ever actually finished a game of Monopoly?” Admittedly, I used to be anti-Monopoly myself. (During high school, my friend Meg and I maintained an in-progress game of Monopoly in her mom’s basement for more than two years before finally giving up.) Then, while processing the Philip E. Orbanes papers here in the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, I discovered that my family had actually been playing the game incorrectly for years. (That $500 bill we’d been slipping under the Free Parking square? Not in the game instructions. Making everyone travel around the board one time before they could acquire anything? Nope, not a rule. Auctioning properties? Never heard of it.) My family’s informal additions, ironically, were the cause of my distaste for this classic board game. When I asked my mom why we didn’t follow the authentic instructions, she shrugged and said that this is how she learned to play.
Many of my friends have had similar experiences. Their families’ “house rules” have influenced how they played (and continue to play) board games and other amusements. This winter, I spent more than five harrowing minutes ranting to my bewildered boyfriend about why he couldn’t have a dictionary or a list of two-letter words on-hand for a (no-longer) leisurely game of Scrabble. His family had historically brought these resources to the table when they set up the Scrabble board, while mine instituted complex rules about word challenges and lost turns. (At some point in the 2000s, the Novakovics also established a “three-tile minimum” turn for Scrabble, because my youngest brother would always, without fail, put down two tiles to spell a word such as ‘TOE’ for three points, right where the next person had prepared to play all seven of their tiles on a Triple Word Score.) Following this revelation, I turned to a cohort of clever board and card game enthusiasts* to learn about their own versions of house rules, and I was not disappointed.
- To decide who goes first, players carefully review the tiles on their bench and openly declare the maximum number of tiles they are able to use to form a word. Whoever can use the highest number of tiles on the first turn of the game gets to start.
- If a player adds the letter S to pluralize or conjugate an existing word on the board, his or her score for that turn applies only to the letter S and not the rest of the word.
- If a player has three or more tiles of the same letter on their bench, he or she is allowed to exchange three of them for new tiles without losing a turn or being penalized.
- If all players agree to “Anarchy Scrabble” prior to beginning game play, anything that is recognizable as a word (acronyms, slang, spells from Harry Potter, etc.) can be played.
- If a player is unfamiliar with a proper noun on a card which they have drawn, he or she is allowed to return the card and draw again without penalty.
- If a player draws a “Create Your Own” card, he or she may use that turn as an opportunity to return unwanted cards from their hand and draw replacement cards.
- Players are not permitted to choose their own character/game piece; instead, they must draw a character card to see which color playing token they will be, prior to the “murderer” card being chosen and removed.
- Players can agree to skip rolling the dice and travelling around the board completely, thus making gameplay consist solely of making suggestions and accusations.
- If a player of the game is a former Jeopardy! contestant, all other players begin the game with five pieces of pie in their wheel, while the Jeopardy! alum begins with zero.
- If the question-asker doesn’t recognize the answer on the trivia card and believes that the person being asked the question also would have no idea, the question-asker is permitted to replace the card and draw again.
- To end the game, a player with all six pieces of pie in his or her wheel must return to the center of the board and correctly answer all questions on the trivia card to win. If he or she misses any questions, the player must attempt this feat upon their next turn.
Whether it’s a silly directive (“Everyone points to their nose when someone lands on the same space as another player!”) or a rule change that could potentially cause an in-game crisis (“What do you mean you automatically receive $5,000 because I rolled doubles?”), the only requirement for playing with house rules is to disclose them ahead of time. Perhaps you and your fellow game players will brainstorm some new, alternate ways to play. And may I suggest a global rule: the winner of the game, not the loser, must clean up the game and put everything away for next time. (After all, you have to keep the winner humble somehow.)
*Special thanks to Jennifer Morrow, Ben Ingram, Aria Gerson, Nicholas Condon, Alistair Bell, Josh McIlvain, Sara Lehmann, Tom Kelso, Timothy Woodward, Lore Guilmartin, Jeff Richmond, Megan Barnes, Lisa Price, Jane Stimpson, Michael Baker, Shea Zellweger, and many others for sharing their own house rules!
For more on toys, games, and all sorts of other stuff for play—past and present—from Julia and her museum colleagues, visit The Strong's Play Stuff Blog.